Tony Cummings tells the story of HILLSONG UNITED, the youth arm of Australia's Hillsong mega church
Considering how overcrowded the USA's modern worship scene has become, it is extraordinary that 'All Of The Above' by Hillsong United - the youth arm of Australia's mega church - should have recently reached number one in America's Christian music chart. Band principal Joel Houston recently told US journalist Andree Farias why he thought Hillsong United should have impacted the US: "Consistency. Just doing it. We don't even see ourselves as a band as much as part of a movement - I guess maybe even a mouthpiece for that. All of that starts at home, with our church, a local community. Now that we've come to [the States] and united with the people here and all over the Earth, [we're all discovering] that we share the same faith, the same passion, the same heart. What we're doing is fluid. I don't think it's something that we do for five years, and then United becomes dismissed. Ideally, it's something that goes on, something that we build over time. But our hope is to keep the main thing being the main thing. And if the main thing is creating music that people can sing in church and that young people can connect to God through, I think it's fine. As long as we're always committed to our call to serve the Church and keep that the basis for why we do what we do. We could tour 365 days a year, but we don't, because that's not our call. Record labels will tell us to do it 'cause it will help sell more albums. But at the end of the day, it's not what we do."
Joel is, of course, the son of Hillsong's senior pastor Brian Houston. He is quite candid about his early musical experience. "I started playing when I was 13. We started a youth band - it was the beginnings of United. I started playing the piano, and I was horrible; I couldn't even do chords. Then I moved onto guitar. But since there was no bass player, I did that instead because I was probably the least talented guitarist out of the three that we had. I started writing songs. When I was 18, I started to see worship as a cool thing, so I started writing worship songs. And our church at that point started building quite a reputation for praise and worship. So I was fortunate enough to be in a place where there was a platform for the songs I was writing."
The growth of the Hillsong Church (originally called Hills Christian Life Centre) was propelled forward by exceptional worship songs that had the certain "something" to captivate the world Church. First it was Geoff Bullock's "Power Of Your Love" and when, in '94, Geoff left Hillsong it was Darlene Zschech's "Shout To The Lord". With its particular emphasis on congregation-involving contemporary worship the Hillsong Church experienced spectacular growth, from about 4,000 members in 1994 to 19,000 today. In such a hotbed of worship it was the perfect place for a fledgling songwriter like Joel Houston to get feedback on his new songs. Explained Joel, "I might show a song to Reuben [Morgan, worship leader at Hillsong], and he's very straightforward. He'll nod his head or not do anything. Ultimately, I'll show it to Darlene [Zschech] and she may tell me something like, 'That line right there is not going to work.' She's worried about what's going to work in the Church at large. 'It's a good line, but you need to come up with something that will be more accessible to people.' From day one, I've learned to really work over my songs myself, chip away at them until they're all they can be. They say you have to write your song in private, then rewrite it in public. That's so true. You write the song, then you show it to people and you get their opinion."
Hillsong United were formed in 1998 by Hillsong worship leaders and songwriters Reuben Morgan and Marty Sampson as an edgier, more youth orientated worship alternative to the adult pop of mainstream Hillsong releases. Like their parent church, whose early albums were released under several name variants, at first the aggregation had a certain "branding problem" with the original name adopted being United Live. But whatever the confusing front sleeve design, the debut album, 1999's 'Everyday', did well, as did subsequent albums 'Best Friend' (2001) and 'King Of Majesty' (2002). Said Reuben Morgan at the time of 'King Of Majesty''s release, "This is the third United Live album - another year along in the journey. All we set out to do on this new album was to reflect the heart and soul of our youth ministry, and where the youth are with God. The youth ministry at Hillsong Church has grown over the last year and the songs and sound of the album are a reflection of that. Songs such as, 'King Of Majesty' and 'I Adore' are perfect examples of where the heart cry of our youth is today. The night of the recording was actually an unexpected amazing moment. Apart from the scores of people packing the auditorium, there was a passion for God and a raw sense of worship throughout the place. It was an amazing night where people were saved and people were simply hungry for God."
By 2002 United Live had become Hillsong United and the "worship leaders" credited on 2003's 'To The Ends Of The Earth' album were Reuben Morgan and Joel Houston. More live albums, 'More Than Life' (2003) and 'Look To You' (2005), followed and by the time 'United We Stand' was released, the Hillsong United "brand" was big enough to warrant an article in America's influential Record Retailing. Joel Houston explained to that magazine, "Then we have the big Hillsong albums with Darlene and the crew, and a lot of it is the same band. We call it 'big church' and 'little church'. 'Big church' and the youth band are [largely] the same team." 'United We Stand' was recorded in front of 4,000 worshippers and includes the songs "The Revolution", "Kingdom Come" and "Fire Fall Down". Even though the album was the sixth release from the group, Houston said the group was "just getting started." "There's a lot of people who need to know Jesus," he said. "If our worship is just great youth meetings, nice songs, lots of jumping around and a few CDs, then we're missing it. Our vertical expression must have a horizontal effect. So, we'll continue to worship, praise and honour God with heart, soul, mind and strength the best we know how, but the fruit of that must be a generation who are totally committed to reaching the lost and helping those who need help, locally and globally."
Such visionary aspirations were continued on the next album 'All Of The Above'. This time Joel told Christian Retailing, "Young people all over the earth [are] in connection with the same God. I really felt that we had to try and capture that picture and create a portrait of a generation across the earth worshipping God and being changed and inspired to affect and make a difference in their world." 'All Of The Above' was the band's first ever studio album. Joel told CCM magazine, "It was a whole new experience for sure. We just thought that we would get in the studio and basically do what we always do. We just grabbed a song and played it front to back, back to front and just worshipped."
Two new Hillsong United projects are now on the blocks, one tentatively titled 'The 1 Heart Revolution' will be released in 2008 while the other, a live EP 'For We Are Young And We Are Free', recorded at Hillsong's Summer Camp, should be released later this year.
Over the span of their career, Hillsong United have stayed largely on the fringe of the CCM "industry", gaining momentum through youth events and word-of-mouth. A few years ago, record execs had told the band that in order to be successful in America, they would have to do huge tours with festival and radio promotions. Instead, Hillsong United charted their own course. In staying true to their ministry, the group has seen many incredible opportunities unfold for them. Joel said, "I think it's a real testimony to anybody no matter what they do. You set out with great ideals. You have desires and dreams. It's really easy to kind of be told what you need to be. I think it's a great testimony of staying true to what's in your heart and what God's called you to do."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.